The Bishop of Dreams
Amazingly, these insights come from a fifth-century bishop of the church. His name was Synesius of Cyrene, and his treatise On Dreams, composed around 405, is one of the wisest books ever written on dreams, coincidence and imagination. Synesius was a most unusual bishop. In his life and work we find — alas, only briefly — a confluence between the best of the ancient practice of philosophy and the new religion of the Roman empire.
Synesius was a Greco-Roman aristocrat who could trace his pedigree back to the founders of Sparta, seventeen hundred years before him. He lived on a great estate in Cyrene, part of modern Libya, enjoyed the pleasures of both the hunt and the study, and chuckled over the fact that rural folk in his area still thought “the king of the world” was Agamemnon.
He had the best education possible in his time, in Alexandria, in the school of Hypatia, the extraordinary woman scientist, mathematician, and Neoplatonist who strode the streets of the world-city in her philosopher’s cloak, surrounded by eager students. It was in Alexandria that Synesius experienced his first and deepest conversion, when he found “the eye of the soul” within him opening to reveal the sacred depth of the universe. His consciousness expanded to give him the clear vision of the One beyond the many. He saw the reality behind the forms of religion. In his quiet hours, he dedicated himself to “mysteries without rites” devoted to awakening the divinity within the human that corresponds and coincides with the divinity within and beyond the cosmos. He was a convert to philosophy as it was understood in the Greco-Roman world: the love and practice of wisdom.
It was in Alexandria, around 405 and recently married, that he wrote his treatise on dreams.
He makes it clear that his discussion of dreams is grounded in personal experience. Dreams have guided him in the hunt, showing him how and where to find the game. Dreams have led him to “swarms of wild beasts that have fallen to our spears”.
He was guided by dreams when his city sent him to Constantinople to plead for favors from the emperor. In a hothouse of political intrigue, his dreams helped him to tell friend from foe, and alerted him to hostile intrigues in which his enemies hired “ghost-raising sorcerers” to attack him by black magic.
The dream oracle “helped me in the management of public office in the best interest of the cities, and finally placed me on terms of intimacy with the Emperor.”
His dreams contributed to his success as a writer and orator. The dream source “frequently helped me to write books”, correcting his style, and helping him to prune archaic Attic expressions — products of his love of old books - from his essays and poems.
Synesius explains that dreams are “personal oracles”. We want to claim authority over our own dreams and reject anything and anyone who tries to come between us and the dream source. “We ought to seek this branch of knowledge before all else; for it comes from us, is within us, and is the special possession of the soul of each one of us.”
The dream oracle speaks to us wherever we go. “We can’t abandon this oracle even if we try. It is with us at home and abroad, on the field of battle, in the city and in the marketplace.”
Dreams are our common birthright. They belong to rich and poor, to kings and to slaves. The dream oracle turns no one down because of race or age, status or calling.
Even the worst tyrant is powerless to separate us from our dreams — which may hold the key to his overthrow — “unless he could banish sleep from his kingdom”.
“Dream divination is available to all, the good genius to everyone.”
It is no wonder that dreams show us the future, because dreams are experiences of soul and “the soul holds the forms of things that come into being”
Synesius dismisses dream dictionaries — popular in his time, as in ours — with admirable vigor. “I laugh at all those books and think them of little use”. General definitions don’t work because each dreamer is a different mirror for dream images — some are funhouse mirrors, some are made of varied materials. Big dreams do not require interpretation; their meaning is in the experience of the dream itself. Dreams that are “more divine” are “quite clear and obvious, or nearly so”, but come only to those who live “according to virtue”.
Steeped in Homer, he can’t avoid mentioning the scene in the Odyssey where the Gates of Horn and Ivory are described. In his view, both Homer’s Penelope and legions of commentators and borrowers failed to understand that dreams, in themselves, are never false. Penelope assumes that there are true dreams and deceptive dreams “because she was not instructed in the matter.” Deception arises through false interpretations, not false dreams. If Penelope had understood the nature of dreaming better, “she would have made all dreams pass out through the Gate of Horn…We should not confuse the weakness of the interpreter with the nature of the visions themselves.”
Synesius recommends setting an intention for the night. “We shall pray for a dream, even as Homer prayed. And if you are worthy, the god far away is present with you…He comes to your side when you sleep, and this is the whole system of the initiation.”
Synesius also stresses the value of keeping a dream journal, and of writing and creating from dreams. “It is no mean achievement to pass on to another something of a strange nature that has stirred in one’s own soul”.
Synesius urges us to keep a “day book” for our observations of signs and synchronicities as well as a “night book” for dreams. “All things are signs appearing through all things…they are brothers in a single living creature, the cosmos…they are written in characters of every kind”. The deepest scholarship lies in reading the sign language of the world; the true sage is a person “who understands the relationship of the parts of the universe”.
Five years after writing his essay On Dreams, Synesius was persuaded by Theophilus, the Patriarch of Alexandria, to accept the bishopric of Ptolemais. It seems that he was baptized at the same time, rather late in the day according to our common understanding of what is involved in becoming a bishop of the church.
Synesius’ entry into the episcopate was a political, rather than a spiritual, event. The influence of his wife — who he loved deeply — may have been important; she was presumably Christian, since Theophilus was at their wedding in 403. Winning an aristocratic philosopher to the church was a coup for the Patriarch; though Christianity had become the religion of the empire, the old houses were still keeping their distance. For Synesius, assuming the rank and responsibilities of a bishop was both a case of noblesse oblige and an accommodation to the movement of history. In 399, the Serapeum — the great temple complex of Serapis at Alexandria — had been destroyed, and the might of the Roman Empire was now being used to stamp out pagan practices. The new God was fast supplanting the old ones.
In theological language, Synesius joined the Christians through adhesion rather than through the transformative experience of a full conversion. But we can trace some possible lines of convergence between his philosophy and the Christian message. He believed in One divinity, behind the many forms of the divine. He wrote of the “fall” of the soul from a state of knowledge and truth. He believed that in times of darkness, a saving power may be sent to rescue humanity from itself and its deceivers. His essay On Providence depicts a world dominated by dark forces whose purpose is to drag humans down and destroy them if they reach for the light. Behind the surface events of history is the struggle between the higher instincts of humanity and the darkness within and around it. The power of light in humanity runs down, and must be restored periodically, at the end of the great cycles of history. But sometimes, when humans are in extremis, divine intervention may take place before the end of a cycle, to keep the game in play.
If Synesius lived long enough to learn the end of his mentor, Hypatia, he would have been left in no doubt that the darkness was rising. Though Hypatia’s students included Christians, the fanatical Cyril, who became bishop of Alexandria in 412, saw her as magnet for pagans. His violent diatribes against her helped to inflame a mob, led by a church lector, that pulled Hypatia from her carriage at night. In their collective dementia, these frenzied fundamentalists dragged her into a church called the Caesarium, tore off her clothes, and flayed her alive with sharp-edged shells. Then they butchered her body and burned the pieces to ashes.
In such a world, Synesius offered the means of communicating with a higher realm, and bringing gifts from it into everyday life. He taught that the realm of imagination is “the hollow gulf of the universe” where the soul is at home. Imagination is “the halfway house between spirit and matter, which makes communication between the two possible”. The soul travels in this realm in dreams.
For Bishop Synesius, dreaming is everyday church. It is also a way of entry into the real world. According to Synesius, the dreamer does not return to reality when he awakens; dreaming, he is already there.
Excerpt from The Secret History of Dreaming by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library. © Robert Moss 2009.